At the bottom of a culvert beneath an underpass near the 405 Freeway in Culver City, a dead body is half submerged in the water, trapped in a net that is catching garbage from the rushing water draining to the ocean.
“There is something in the water down there!” shouts a woman — who spots the body as she is rollerblading along Ballona Creek — to a nearby maintenance worker.
The worker hesitatingly approaches and lifts his arm to cover his face, wincing at the stench of the rotting corpse.
Passersby might have been forgiven for thinking they were witnessing just another L.A. murder scene — except for the presence of film, catering trucks and Star Waggons trailers parked on the street above.
In fact, the scene is part of “Ballona Creek,” the eighth episode of “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” a new spinoff series of the long-running NBC drama that was canceled in May after a 20-year run.
Although the original “Law & Order” has long been associated with New York, its spinoff is finding a new life on the streets of Los Angeles.
The drama, which stars Skeet Ulrich and Corey Stoll as LAPD homicide detectives, is among nine new one-hour series filming in L.A., giving a needed boost to local production. Local filming of dramas declined 33% in the third quarter compared with last year because of the proliferation of reality shows, competition for location shooting from other states and the cancellation of the series “24,” “Numbers” and “Heroes.”
Location filming for television has recently bounced back, however, thanks to new series this season such as “The Defenders” on CBS and “The Event” on NBC. It was up 52% last week over the same period a year earlier, according to data from FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit group that handles film permits.
Among the biggest contributors to the increased activity is “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” or LOLA as the production crew calls it.
The series is the latest in a long line of crime and cop shows that have used L.A. as a backdrop, including “Dragnet” and “Adam 12" in the 1960s, “SWAT” in the 1970s and, more recently, “The Shield” and “Southland.” But none has tied itself so closely to L.A.'s neighborhoods and communities the way LOLA has — albeit not in a flattering light.
Each episode of LOLA is named after a place where a crime occurred or that has some connection to the killer.
For instance, one episode is titled “Echo Park,” where a Charles Manson-type serial killer lived (the Manson murders occurred in neighboring Los Feliz and Benedict Canyon). Another episode called " Sylmar” is about terrorists plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and features a scene inside the Encounter restaurant and bar at LAX. And another episode centers on Pasadena, where a suspected driver in a hit-and-run accident lives.
“The crime will drive where we go,” said Rene Balcer, an executive producer of LOLA. “If we’re going to shoot an episode about the porn industry, we’re going to be in Van Nuys. If it’s a surfing scene, we’ll be at the beach. And if we’re doing something about the Grim Sleeper, we’ll be in South Central L.A. In the crime area, we’re well represented.”
LOLA shot at 10 locations around L.A. last week, and this week it’s filming in downtown, Culver City, Marina del Rey and Hancock Park.
Like " NCIS: Los Angeles,” another spinoff series on CBS, “Law & Order: Los Angeles” films heavily on location, shooting about four out of eight days per episode on the city’s streets, and the remainder on soundstages at Los Angeles Center Studios, where the show is based. Occupying the 10th floor in the old Unocal building, which doubles as the homicide division headquarters, there are also sets for a courtroom and district attorney’s office.
“We spend a lot of time in the scouting van,” said Chris Misiano, an executive producer and director on the show. “We try to stay relatively true to the title of the episode and bring an element of that community to the show.”
Although identifying clusters of locations in L.A. is much harder than in New York because L.A. is so spread out, there is no shortage of sites from which to choose. Crew members chip in with suggestions on where to film, Misiano said. One of the show’s writers was familiar with a culvert at Will Rogers State Beach and suggested it as a good location for the “Echo Park” episode, where the body of a former female cult member is found by detectives.
People who work on the show will “say there’s a great hotel around the corner from my house, you’ve got to see it,” Misiano said.
Familiarity with the local landscape doesn’t mean it makes the job any easier for the show’s producers, however. When it comes to red tape, L.A. is much like any other city.
The “Ballona Creek” episode took nearly a month of preparation. “We had to get approval from 10 different agencies,” production executive Jill Danton said. “We had no idea permission was going to be granted until the eleventh hour.”